How I Stayed Grounded with 40 Years’ Experience in Civilian and Military Aviation
by Dave Chamberlin
Just as a preface, this story has a point. Mainly that there are lessons I learned early in life that have stood me in good stead. Such as the need to be patient and calm when things are going sideways and also to keep my mouth shut unless I have something of real value to add. And lastly, I learned about charity from a great man. So, on to the story.
I was born in an Air Force hospital in 1958. Yep – I’m the wheezinist geezer you probably know. And when I retired from the ANG in 2018 I was the oldest member of the Indiana National Guard (Army and Air). My dad was a Crew Chief, my grandfather was a Crew Chief in the Army Air Corps in WWII. I had relatives in both the Union and Confederate armies as well as some who served in the War of Independence. As far as I know none of them distinguished themselves “above and beyond” which for sure included myself. Maybe I’m wrong, but I think we are all best categorized as those who served to the best of their ability.
When I was really young, I didn’t get the normal bedtime stories. Instead, my dad told me airplane stories. He had, and still has, an amazing love of military aviation and passed that along to me. I guess in a way I was preprogrammed through both genetics and nurture. Dad left the AF shortly after I was born, but when I was six we attended the open house at Amarillo AFB (where I was born) where the Thunderbirds performed. They were flying the F-100 Super Sabre and those planes were just larger than life. Just a side note, there is an F-100 that operates out of Fort Wayne Indiana at the same base I retired from and it was always a sentimental journey when they flew it. That airplane has a “bang-in” burner which means that when the afterburner lights off there is a very loud bang. Modern fighters have “soft-light” burners which ignite quieter. Which leads into something else. If you haven’t stood right next to an engine running in full burner then you haven’t lived. Every molecule in your body vibrates as adrenaline courses through your veins. Double or even quadruple the engines, like on the B-1 and it’s, well, indescribable.
Back to the 1964 season Thunderbirds. I was impressed. Later in life, after having to support them for a number of airshows, my opinion of the team changed. But to be fair, the Blue Angels and Golden Knights aren’t any better. They are great to the public but treat the support people like crap. Generalization? Probably so, but I supported at least a dozen shows in military status and that was my experience every time.
In the 1960’s the Air Force was impressive, especially at open houses and airshows. None of the FAA and current whiny baby girlie panty Air Force restrictions were in place. Planes flew over the spectators at low altitudes and really showcased the aircraft. At Nellis they even had Airpower Demonstration days where they dropped live bombs, napalm, and shot the guns, all within a distance today that would cause mass heart attacks with our sensitive, sheepy population.
At 16 I soloed in a sailplane which was another life changing event and flying those is a very Zen sort of thing for me. This was in New Zealand and our tow plane was a bright yellow WW II-era DeHavilland Tiger Moth biplane in RAF markings. There was a brief foray into powered flight instruction but I hated it. Inexplicably, when I heard there was an Air Force Academy I got excited about the idea of attending and becoming a fighter pilot. But the timing was wrong for application and my grades weren’t high enough. They could have been, but to the frustration of my teachers I was happy to get a B since it was easy and then I got to goof off the rest of the time. There was another roadblock that I didn’t know was there until I joined the Air Force. Because I went to High School in New Zealand, the Air Force didn’t recognize my diploma and classified me as a non-high school graduate and placed me as a GED. The funny thing is that the last year of high school in New Zealand is the equivalent of a freshman year in college. But whatever. Looking back the Academy would have been a disaster for me and the Air Force. I’m a rebel without a clue and the Academy staff and Commandant would have booted me within weeks.
My family moved back to the U.S. when I was 17 and my graduation present was a 1957 Chevy which cost my parents a whopping $300. Keep in mind that in 1975 it wasn’t as cool a car as today. Now get ready for a shock. Sit down or hold onto something. I sold it in 1979, the year before I joined the Air Force because I had a car that was more practical. And the sale price? $300! Yeah go ahead. I kick myself too. But get this. When I was about four years old my dad had a pristine 1956 Porsche Speedster and a growing family. Wanna guess how much he sold it for? Sit down again. No, maybe you’d better lay down. He sold it for $300. Like father like son. Ha! I’m guessing my grandpa traded a Deusenberg for a cow and my Revolutionary War relatives traded a full set of Paul Revere silver for a pouch of pipe tobacco. You can shut up now. We are patriots, not financial wizards. I turned down a commission on three separate occasions so I think that speaks volumes about my monetary acumen. Lol!
As a typical high school grad, I pretty much bummed around my parents house doing nothing. I worked enough to pay gas and insurance and have date money which normally occupied my evenings. You probably know where this is going with my parents and they finally reached their breaking point. To keep them happy, I signed up for Community College, which also did not recognize my foreign diploma and said I had to take all the pre-101 courses. Sitting in pre-Algebra when you’ve taken a few terms of Calculus is Russian Roulette-inducing agony. I lasted two weeks and dropped out of a full course load. So it was back to the couch and the parental looks of concern at their firstborn. Also, disappointment mixed with beginnings of regret for not thinking in terms of birth control in 1957. Hey it just clicked with me that they got married the same year my Chevy was on the production line. There’s a joke or two in there somewhere.
I think it was during this time that I experienced my first real grief. One day I came home from school and there was a letter from one of my close friends in New Zealand informing me of the death of my inseparable best friend in a motorcycle accident. He had sent the letter three weeks earlier and enclosed a picture of the new Kawasaki he had bought and how excited he was. The letter I had just received had a clipping of his obituary and I figured out that he had died a few days after sending his letter. Apparently a driver turned in front of him and he went up over the top of the car, and after he landed he decided he wasn’t hurt that bad and got up and started walking around. Sadly, when he got up he had multiple broken bones that punctured his organs and he died en route to the hospital. He was really into music and we had both taken a liking to Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road album. The opening song on that album is Funeral for a Friend and I’ll be honest here and say that to this day I shed a tear when I hear that song. I miss you, Will. You were a great friend. Now back to our regularly scheduled program.
One fateful day, as I was slowly being absorbed by the couch, my dad told me he was taking my brother to a nearby A&P school to check it out and asked if I wanted to go along. Since he was pointing a loaded 1911 at my forehead I decided that it might be fun. Besides that, if I died in that couch nobody would ever find my body. If you remember 1970’s décor and color schemes you’ll get it. And for those that don’t know, A&P is short for Airframe and Powerplant which is the FAA license that’s pretty much required to work on civilian aircraft. There are exceptions but in the main that’s the requirement.
So I went with them and toured the place. The technology and smell of aircraft and parts reactivated my dormant genes that dad had cruelly infected me with and I signed up. My brother did not. Looking back, I wish he had because he went to work in a mom and pop furniture refinishing place. This was pre-OSHA days and he got leukemia from the chemicals and died a long and painful death in 1993 at the age of 33. Dan, I wish it had been me instead of you. You were by far the better human being.
Mechanically, I wasn’t much. Both dad and granddad, besides being aircraft mechanics, had later become car mechanics and granddad ran his own shop almost up until the day he died. As a kid I hung out in his shop, but about all I was good for was wiping down the tools. He was a man of few words but taught me a few things about working on cars.
But here’s what he really taught me. Patience and calm when things appear to be falling apart or when people have done something really stupid. One day my brother was in the shop with us and he saw my grandpa using the hydraulic shop press to remove a ball bearing from a transmission shaft. He thought it looked fun and retrieved a bearing from the scrap pile and just set it on the plate and started pumping the ram down. Mind you, there was no shaft in this bearing. Just a 4-inch ball bearing with I don’t know how much pressure being applied to it by an eight-year old daredevil. Within moments there was a bang and then the air was filled with flying deadly spheres as the bearing let loose. 2020 Dave flashes to the movie The Green Berets when they set off the Claymores and my brother was frozen in shock. Fortunately, nobody was hurt except for a few holes in the wall. All my grandpa did was walk calmly over to my brother and move him away from the shop press. All he said was, “Here, here, you can’t do that.” And then he showed him how to correctly use the machine. Now don’t get me wrong, I sure don’t have the level of patience and calm that he did. But I got some of it. It helped me immensely later in life, especially when I became an instructor.
He also taught me to only speak when I had something of value to add. By being that way, when he spoke you listened because you knew it wasn’t just going to be fluff. I’ve been in way too many situations where people were speaking just to let everyone know that they are important because they have something of value to add. The quintessential one is: “Just to piggyback on what the commander said…” and then they just say verbatim what the commander just said. It’s the same thing as making someone read a book and then you reading the book to them. Shut up you idiots! By doing that you just prove that you DON’T have anything important to say. Now the flip side is that if you are quiet most of the time then people may think you are anti-social. Ok. Yeah. I don’t care. Moving on.
I retired as a Maintenance Group Superintendent (E-9) which technically meant that I was responsible for everyone who worked on the aircraft and I reported directly to the Colonel who was Maintenance Group Commander. I always frustrated the poor guy at Commanders Calls because of my “speak little” philosophy. He would give his talk and then go around the room to other leadership to see what they had to add. Of course they were plenty of piggybackers, but he always asked me last and my answer 99% of the time was: “Nothing to add, sir” and he would press me to say something (which I rarely did). Then came the last meeting the day of my retirement. My commander came to the end and said: “Chief, since this is your last meeting before retirement, do you have any final words for us?” My reply was, “Meeting adjourned” and it was. He said, “You heard the Chief.” Even in my current civilian job I still carry the same philosophy. And there is another reason I do it. I hate most meetings/briefings and the less I say the quicker it’s over.
One last thing I learned from my grandpa was charity. When the widows came into his shop to get their cars fixed he rarely charged them, or he at the least would deeply discount the price. He would do a tune up for $1 sometimes and tell the ladies it was a quick and easy job so the labor wasn’t much. I don’t think he knew that I saw what he was doing. He did that sort of thing though all areas in his life and it has stood me in good stead to emulate him. The karma you get back from giving someone your older laptop instead of charging them $30 is immeasurable. Taking someone’s duty so that they can be with family will gain you all sorts of loyalty and good morale. And the Big Guy upstairs digs it too. No, not the base commander. Lol!
Now jumping back to my story. 18 months of training and $18,000 in student loans see me graduate from A&P school in August of 78. All excited about starting a career as an aircraft mechanic. But the Air Force at this point isn’t even on my radar…
Coming up in the next installment. Working in Arcades to put myself through A&P school and my first job as an aircraft mechanic working with a Korean War veteran helicopter mechanic. Oh, I should mention that he was an alcoholic. Stay tuned for jocularity and shenanigans.
Dave Chamberlain holds a Master of Aeronautical Science in Aviation Management from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and is currently a senior maintenance training manager for Republic Airways. He is also a retired CMSgt, having served 4 years on active duty in the USAF and another 34 years in the Air National Guard. Dave has held a wide variety of technical, instructor, consultant and leadership positions in his nearly 40 years of civilian and military aviation experience.